The investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties has lately been hobbled by the bumbling doings of Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee. It’s not necessary to retrace Nunes’s transgressions here—not even his comically indiscreet intelligence-sharing rendezvous with Trump loyalists on White House grounds—except to note that he has hopelessly compromised his credibility. Republicans and Democrats alike have called for him to step aside from his oversight perch. His Democrat counterpart on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, has also denounced Nunes’s behavior, accusing the congressman and the White House of making a hash of normal intel-sharing and investigatory procedures.
Nunes’s fumblings could be chalked up to the habits of a venal politician performing loyalty to Trump (he was part of Trump’s transition effort). But the imbroglio Nunes has cooked up also isn’t out of character for a Republican party that has become allergic to the basic mechanisms of governance, especially their oversight responsibilities. For years GOP politicians have preached responsibility while simultaneously kneecapping the oversight committees they manage—a process that reached its excruciating culmination in the recent Senate torture investigation, during which Senator Richard Burr and others seemed to be as eager as the CIA to see the report’s conclusions suppressed.
Expand the historical aperture and we find more sobering examples of blue-ribbon oversight investigations that, rather than holding the corrupt to account, absolved them of sin. And we see this especially in instances in which Americans colluded with foreign powers to help win elections.
Take the infamous October Surprise, the ur-event that’s come to represent late-term election meddling. In the lead-up to the 1980 election, representatives of the Ronald Reagan campaign allegedly met with Iranian officials in Madrid, Paris, and at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., and hatched a plan to provide arms and equipment to the Iranian government in exchange for the release of Americans held hostage. Sure enough, minutes after Reagan was sworn in, the hostages were released, and in later years the Reagan administration became enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal, another secret arms-for-hostages trade that also used Israel as an intermediary and came to be connected with the October Surprise. (Robert Parry, a former AP journalist who has done essential reporting on the October Surprise, called the events of October 1980 “a kind of a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal.”) These scandals were investigated by various commissions, including the Tower Commission and the House October Surprise Task Force, which mostly cleared Reagan officials of wrongdoing. Their softball conclusions were endorsed by the George H.W. Bush administration and even Congressional Democrats, who, by the time that the October Surprise Task Force finished its report in late 1992, were eager to lay the legislative groundwork for the incoming Clinton administration, and move on.
Official oversight commissions tend to perform all of the trappings of democratic accountability while rarely resulting in lasting reform.
Skip back another generation and consider Richard Nixon’s sabotaging of the Paris Peace talks during the 1968 election campaign. President Johnson had already announced his decision not to seek re-election and, as his final achievement, he sought to begin to end the Vietnam War by establishing peace with the North Vietnamese. It was a policy supported by (and designed to boost the fortunes of) Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who led the Democratic ticket. Nixon’s team had other plans and, we now know, communicated through backchannels with key Vietnamese officials from both sides, pleading with them to delay any peace agreement. Nixon would give them a better deal, his representatives promised. President Johnson knew all about these communications—the FBI kept him informed of visits by political operative Anna Chenault to the South Vietnamese embassy—and was incensed. But he did little about it beyond grousing to Nixon’s associates and obliquely threatening Nixon in a phone conversation. In the waning days of the election, Johnson bemoaned the fact that the peace talks were slipping away in a meeting with Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Rusk thought the country didn’t need to know what Nixon was up to: “We get information like this every day, some of it very damaging to American political figures,” he explained. “We have always taken the view that with respect to such sources there is no public ‘right to know.’ Such information is collected simply for the purposes of national security.” The president decided to stay quiet, largely to preserve the appearance of democratic order during a tense election campaign. In choosing to preserve the perceived legitimacy of the country’s electoral system over revealing the disastrous collusion of a candidate with a foreign power, Johnson’s actions would foreshadow the dilemma faced by the Obama administration in the summer of 2016, when it struggled with how loudly to bang on the drum on possible Russian interference in the election campaign.
Walt Rostow regretted that Nixon’s treachery was never fully exposed. And because “they got away with it,” he later wrote, “as the same men faced the election in 1972, there was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit and beyond.” Breaking into Watergate is nothing if you’ve experienced sabotaging a major peace accord.
None of these oversight failures should be taken to mean that the current investigatory effort should be curtailed, much less abandoned. On the contrary, the need for an independent commission, one not overseen by the likes of Devin Nunes and with broad subpoena power, is painfully clear. But the tendency of the powerful to absolve themselves and to protect one another—regardless of partisan divisions—shouldn’t be ignored. Official oversight commissions tend to perform all of the trappings of democratic accountability—calling witnesses, producing masses of paperwork, publishing phone-book-sized reports—while rarely resulting in lasting reform. And with so much important information remaining classified, the process happens largely out of public view; the final product can be mired in redactions, as was the case with the executive summary to the Senate torture report.
Those investigating possible Trumpist collusion with Russia have two difficult tasks ahead of them. First, they will have to get to the bottom of a murky story defined by conspiracy talk and hysterical speculation. Then they have to try to get their conclusions to stick—to provoke at least one indictment or resignation, or to pass some legislation that provides meaningful electoral reform (our elections might feel more secure from foreign meddling if it were easier to vote in them). Enough political will exists to launch some kind of independent investigation. But given the ignoble track record of blue-ribbon commissions in this country, it’s likely that Devin Nunes is only the first in a series of obstructions standing in the way of the truth. Whether we ever learn it will depend as much on official investigatory power as luck, leaks, and public outrage. Unlike the representatives elected to oversee our government, those things, at least, can be counted on.